Girl Shredders: complicating patriarchy a thousand notes per second

Screaming Females' Marissa Paternoster

The bad news: I am postponing my entry about The Venture Bros. as a postmodern text. The paper wasn’t as awesome as I expected, so I’m waiting for remarks from my professor before publishing it. There’s a new felix incognito in town, and he doesn’t publish shit — hopefully.

The good news: this post will ideally function as a jumping-off point for my final paper in Girls’ Media & Cultural Studies, and I’m having a hell-of-a good time doing research for it.

Two weeks ago, drawing inspiration from Riot Grrrl discourse, I began to question the state of female representation in independent music scenes today — but to a greater extent I wanted to focus on girl shredders and how they complicate, and even subvert, the hegemonic masculinity of rock (Bayton 13). Shredding, guitar performance that is characterized by quick-fingered dexterity and (often) melodic solos, is an act frequently associated with male guitarists. Images of Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Kirk Hammett, Eddie Van Halen, and more, inundate popular music magazines, with little to no regard for female guitar greats who are just as influential — or, if they aren’t considered influential, that could easily be attributed to their absence from mainstream publications. Where are Lita Ford, Chrissie Hynde, or riot grrrls Carrie Brownstein and Donna Dresch? Shredding is a staple of cock rock, the hyper-masculine display of guitar prowess as a symbol for male (hetero)sexuality (Waksman 239) and the presence of girl shredders challenges that paradigm. Just as the Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s emerged as a response to the male-dominated hardcore punk scene, girl shredders can shift the dynamic of the contemporary rock scene through performance of an action deemed strictly male.

Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney

Historically, scholars have studied girls as passive consumers of music, fans, groupies, and rarely as producers. Even in Angela McRobbie’s ground-breaking article “Girls and Subculture,” (McRobbie 1977) girls were not seen has having much agency within the subcultures to which they belonged. Girls had very little presence in music scenes as well; though, as Mavis Bayton writes, women throughout history have, in fact, been involved as instrumentalists only to be written out of the history books (17). Before punk, women had only been in the musical limelight as vocalists, and even then, according to Bayton, they were only praised for their “natural” ability to sing rather than for their voice as a “learnt craft.” (13) With the advent of punk rock, however, more women, such as Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde, were prominent instrumentalists. Still, these figures were — and still are — few and far between, and, as Bayton argues, the lack of female role models maintains girls’ position as passive participants in music culture. Because of this, women and girl instrumentalists need to be made more visible in order to inspire a new generation of girl musicians.

Sure, there are plenty of women famous for their involvement in popular music; however, their involvement is typically as a vocalist, and singing, as I mentioned before, is commonly considered a “natural” female role. A girl as lead guitarist or, say, drummer is still looked upon as “strange or unnatural.” (Bayton 13) Even my own band (in days of old) hired a female singer, and while she was an excellent front-person for our purposes, we explicitly intended for her to exaggerate her sex appeal. The idea that she could possibly also play an instrument never came up. I attribute our ignorance to the general lack women present in the music industry, and the hyper-sexualized nature of female front-persons in popular music.

Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs

A band that caught my interest over a year ago, Screaming Females, is a good example that complicates male hegemony in rock — specifically in the national indie scene. Despite their name, Screaming Females is not comprised of only girls. While the bassist and drummer, King Mike and Jarrett Dougherty, are male, the vocals and shredder guitar licks are handled by a girl. Marissa Paternoster is often lauded for her shredding, as well she should be. Screaming Females, who, in my opinion, invoke the shredder sounds of Dinosaur Jr., are gaining a lot of momentum, having toured with bands like Ted Leo and the Pharmacists and the Arctic Monkeys, and they’re garnering substantial attention from major music and pop culture blogs. I often think of my introduction to Screaming Females: an email from a friend declaring “best female rock guitarist EVER!” Something about that email struck me. Why was it important to declare her gender upfront? Was he not aware of the precursors or even contemporaries of Screaming Females? Did this serve as a disclaimer or to highlight the novelty of such a concept? My excited friend could have easily said, “This shredder band is playing tonight,” and I would have been just as enticed. I do, after all, love shredding. Screaming Females don’t fall under the category of cock rock, and the fact that Paternoster is not male is exotic — especially to a male audience.

Looking through Rolling Stone’s Top 100 guitarists, it’s obvious that rock guitar is a boys’ club, and because of the over-representation of men in the pages of Rolling Stone, shredding becomes a symbol of gender. There are only two women out of 100 guitarists: Joan Jett and Joni Mitchell — and the latter is involved in a musical style (folk) stereotypically treated as acceptable for female participation. Paternoster challenges the idea of her gender’s role in her performance. Referring to the constant focus on her by music journalists, Paternoster says,

“It’s really hard to describe music, so people need to write about what they see. And so, given the option, what they see gets written about more than what they hear. Which is disheartening. Because it should be about what you hear. But it’s tough to write about that. So I get why people have to write about how I’m small. And I have hair. But, I wish that people could push themselves a little bit harder to find a hook that’s more substantial. I’m not playing there so you can look at me.”

True, but there is still an awareness of gender and subversion of type in her performance. Dressed in a garment you’d expect to see on a woman at a Sunday morning service, or a “girly” frock, Paternoster juxtaposes her dress with the popularly male act of shredding, creating a clash of images that could be read as a statement against the rock n’ roll status quo.

Screaming Females is only one of many bands alive in the national indie rock scene with girl shredders who are a testament to the fact that girls can, and do, shred. Off the top of my head, I think of Marnie Stern and St. Vincent. Marnie Stern is met with similar exotic awe as Paternoster, but St. Vincent seems to only be heralded for her voice. Despite this, their presence and popularity alone will  help to inspire a new generation of girl shredders. In an industry notorious for its objectification of women, and treatment of girls as passive consumers, the sheer presence of female shredders helps to work against the patriarchal nature of the music scene.

References

Bayton, Mavis. Frock Rock. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

McRobbie, Angela (Ed.) Feminism and Youth Culture: From Jackie to Just Seventeen. New York: Routledge, 1991. [12-25]

Waksman Steve, Instruments of Desire: The electric guitar and the shaping of musical experience. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

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4 Responses to “Girl Shredders: complicating patriarchy a thousand notes per second”

  1. Anna Fitzgerald Says:

    Grrl Shredders have been growing in numbers greater than the press can cover.
    As a past director of the Southern Girls Rock & Roll Camp and being in contact with lots of other rock camps, (co-ed camps included) it is in these environments that students learn that gender is not a focus of your talent as a musician.

    For those of us that wish we could go back in time to rock camp, we can choose to include these young voices with our own and challenge the press to go beyond what they see, to what they hear.

    When the press won’t listen, it is time to create new channels and I’m glad writers like Felix are taking on this task in whatever way possible.

    This band was one of the bands I coached at SGRRC 2010.
    Shredding starts in the last minute of this video. Sorry for the poor quality of video.

    This is a band from Girls Rock Camp Austin, who was just voted as best under 18 band, not best under 18 “girl” band, by the Austin Chronicle

    You can vote for them to win gear for their band AND for their school’s music program here:
    http://namm.promo.eprize.com/schooljamusa2010/

    Thanks Felix, keep up the good work.

  2. Carter Says:

    Check out the blues work of Bonnie Raitt when you get a chance. 70’s stuff, pre-Nick of Time. That’s some sick shit.

  3. refridgerator Says:

    While I find this subject matter thrilling and am excited to see it being talked about, I find this article to be just continuing the patronizing view of female guitar players. It’s very surface level, as you write about how Paternoster’s clothing is what makes her stand-out in a male-dominated form. This article is very focused on the image of female guitar players, and I’d like to see it go a little deeper than that.

    Also:
    “I attribute our ignorance to the general lack women present in the music industry, and the hyper-sexualized nature of female front-persons in popular music.”

    This statement is absurd. It is basically saying that YOUR ignorance is a result of women’s individual and legit choices. One’s ignorance is due to one’s own narrow-mindedness and unwillingness to self-educate. You’re basically saying that women musicians haven’t gotten the respect and recognition they deserve because of they way they look. If a female-bodied (or male-bodied) person wants to perform in a hyper-sexualized way (hello Prince, Michael Jackson, etc.) that is their own choice. Also, let’s talk about maybe whyyy many female-fronting musicians perform in that way, as it one of the only ways that society accepts women in music. Additionally, the lack of women’s presence in music is perhaps partly due to there being less women musicians, but let’s look at the reasons for that, ie. less support for women musicians, the stigma around it, and the patronizing and narrow view of women’s roles within music.

    There are a lot of factors at play here which need to be addressed when talking about this.

  4. felixincognito Says:

    this is totally the feedback in needed back in november, and truthfully, i didn’t do nearly enough research for this paper when i wrote it. i do agree that it is a very surface-level analysis of gender and performance — it was my first gender-centric paper, and became immediately clear where i needed to improve.

    the points you bring up were ultimately the points i was trying to make, but the writing didn’t reflect that.

    i’m in a different place with my writing and my research, and perhaps my future pieces will reflect my positions more effectively.

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